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Agunot Advocate Urges Prayer Day As Path to Unbinding ‘chained Wives’

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Mattie Klein is a strong believer in the power of prayer.

Three years ago she asked Rabbi Mordechai Tendler of Monsey, N.Y., to write a prayer for agunot, women unable to obtain Jewish divorces.

Klein’s daughter recited the prayer under the chupah when she got married, and as a result, says Klein, one of the young agunot for whom she prayed was able to remarry this spring. She reels off a list of other “miracles,” seemingly impossible divorce cases resolved after prayers were said.

That faith in prayer has led Klein, now director of a one-year-old New York organization serving agunot to call for the first worldwide day of prayer for agunot, scheduled for Sept. 10, before the start of Rosh Hashanah.

Jews who live according to halachah, Jewish law, require a get to dissolve their marriages. Only a man can give a get, and many withhold them out of spite or in order to extort certain financial settlements from their wives.

Women denied gets are forbidden from remarrying or even dating, and are called agunot, which means “chained women.” Many are trying to escape abusive relationships.

Long a problem in the Orthodox community, the plight of agunot has been discussed more openly in recent years, and organizations advocating on behalf of these women have proliferated. However, there is little consensus as to just what form that advocacy should take.

The worldwide prayer day — in which Klein hopes thousands of women say prayers and psalms for agunot — will be followed four days later by Agunah Get Day, in which estranged husbands are encouraged to grant their wives a divorce.

Klein’s organization, L’Maan B’nos Yisrael International, is offering to pay all the costs associated with the get.

The effort has the endorsement of most major Orthodox organizations in North America and Israel, including the Orthodox Union and the Sephardic Rabbinical Council of America.

But other advocates for agunot say that prayer and even a get day, if not backed by a willingness to reinterpret Jewish law or more forcefully deal with intransigent husbands, will accomplish little.

Most agunot advocates urge strategies like prenuptial agreements and public condemnations of intransigent husbands. Such condemnation became a little easier this summer, when a federal judge in New Jersey ruled that religious leaders — in this case the Council of Orthodox Rabbis of Greater Monsey, N.Y. — could not be sued for publicly criticizing a person’s religious behavior.

Since 1996, two Orthodox rabbis in New York have generated controversy by annulling the marriages of agunot.

The two — Rabbis Emanuel Rackman and Moshe Morgenstern — have been widely condemned by their colleagues, with critics accusing them of “spurious `halachic’ reasoning.”

Virtually no Orthodox rabbi will officiate at marriages of women whose original nuptials were annulled by Rackman or Morgenstern. Klein declined to comment on the two men.

Klein’s organization has sponsored get days and smaller prayer days for agunot in the past, but she declined to say how many cases they resolved, noting that their key accomplishment has been to build community awareness.

The prayer to be recited before Rosh Hashanah asks God to have mercy on the agunot, strengthen and deliver them and grant them “the opportunity to marry, to stand under their own wedding canopy and to build trustworthy families within the nation of Israel, with all other Jewish women who wish to be married.”

Susan Aranoff, co-director of the Brooklyn-based Agunah Inc., which refers women to Rackman and Morgenstern, is skeptical of the prayer effort, although she commended it for “getting people’s attention.”

“We say you can’t rely on miracles,” she said. “The rabbis have to take a more activist approach.”

Aronoff is so discouraged by the agunot situation that she is advising women not to have Orthodox weddings.

Another agunot advocate in Brooklyn, Rivka Haut of the Get Organization, agreed, saying Klein’s organization is “doing wonderful work, but it’s not enough.”

Haut praised Klein’s group for raising awareness and for working to help individual agunot, but it’s not “pushing for a global solution to the problem.”

Klein is not giving up, however.

“With the help of Hashem, nothing is impossible,” said Klein. “If God can part the seas, he can handle a few recalcitrant husbands.”

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